We are in the middle of an exciting period in the marketing research industry, with a number of major shifts taking place that affect how research is done. The web in particular has led to multiple developments which threaten to topple the cherished technologies and techniques that have dominated the last two decades.
Key among these is the shift toward online surveys as a credible alternative to telephonic and face-to-face surveys, coupled with the growth of DIY online survey tools. Along with this has come a host of new potential techniques, such as online focus groups and bulletin boards.
Online surveys will overtake traditional interviewing modes
South African internet penetration has reached the point where online panels are a viable alternative to telephonic and face-to-face interviewing in many cases. If we judge online surveys by the same standards we applied to telephonic surveys in previous decades, then online is an even better option.
Telephonic was considered perfectly viable, even though landline only had around 10% penetration in the SA population prior to the advent of cellphones. Today, internet penetration (usage) has gone well beyond that point, 31% having used the internet in metropolitan areas and 18% nationally (last four weeks - AMPS 2011).
In the case of face-to-face surveys, the truth is that most face-to-face surveys in practice are urban or metropolitan area studies - very rarely are clients prepared to spend the money on a truly representative national-household survey. Internet penetration is more than adequate in these areas to achieve representative samples of all but the very poorest households.
The bottom line is judicious use of quotas and weighting now allows for sufficiently representative online surveys. Couple this with reduced costs and quicker turnaround, and it is clear that the days of traditional-survey modes are numbered.
The decline and fall of call centres
The confluence of WebCATI and faster internet means that the traditional call centre is less appealing than before. Call centres are relatively expensive; they require a dedicated space, with dedicated hardware and have large overheads.
In contrast, WebCATI now makes it easier than ever to manage a large network of interviewers operating from remote locations without the large overhead. To boot, you get rid of the telltale 'call centre background' noise.
Traditional focus groups are likely to become less popular in 2012 as their cost advantage is being eroded
Focus groups are often seen by clients with limited budgets as the low-cost alternative to a survey. But too often focus groups have been required to answer questions they could never really answer - such as reaching conclusions about differences between segments or making decisions regarding a new concepts readiness for launch.
Since focus groups are less reliable (if you repeat the group you often end up with a different answer each time), have small samples which cannot be generalised to the population and are subject to the 'lemming effect', this no doubt means that many a wrong decision has been made.
Online surveys now offer a more cost-effective and more conclusive form of research. Even when more qualitative insights are required, online surveys have been shown to provide detailed responses to open-ended questions - more so than telephonic and face-to-face. Therefore, online surveys are likely to provide a viable alternative to focus groups for researchers on a tight budget.
Online focus groups
For those who still require focus groups for qualitative exploration, online groups are likely to make sense in 2012. Advantages include: lower costs, the potential for longer groups allowing for richer insights, more opportunity for each participant to contribute, and less opportunity for the 'lemming effect' to present itself.
Long-term groups (bulletin boards and MROCs) come of age
I also predict that longer groups will also become popular in the form of bulletin boards and MROCs, which are measured in days rather than hours. These groups provide the opportunity for richer insights.
Advances in neuroscience will improve the MR toolbox
Mind-reading technology no longer just exists in the imaginations of Star Gate's producers anymore.
The University of Berkeley recently demonstrated a major leap forward in our ability to interpret what is happening in the brain in real time. Using a combination of brain scanning and sophisticated software, it was able to obtain a hazy view of the images people were seeing in their mind's eye in response to video footage.
While far from being commercially viable at present, this research offers a hint of what might be possible for marketing researchers in future... frightening, isn't it?
Increasing fragmentation of research companies
The last decade has been characterised by a seemingly never-ending series of mergers in the marketing research industry. Most interpret this to mean that there will be "less choice" for clients. I believe it will be quite the opposite, for two reasons.
Firstly, mergers often mean dissatisfied employees who leave and start their own firms. Each merger gives birth to a host of new options. As one commentator on the IPSOS/Synovate merger stated, at least 40 different companies were formed by ex-employees leaving Synovate globally.
The second major factor is disruptive technology. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to conduct even a national survey as a single researcher - without the requisite field force, call centre, field managers, data capturers, sales team and statisticians. Today it is quite feasible to conduct a multinational survey as a single researcher if you have the right set of talents.
As the 2011 Honomichl report points out, insourcing is becoming a major trend internationally. I expect this will also be a trend in SA this year.
With the appearance of online panels and online survey tools, it is easier than ever to conduct your own surveys, or to partially insource the survey process. If you want to survey consumers in general, rather than your own customers, all you do is buy 'sample' from a panel.
That said, it is unlikely this trend will mean research firms are going to disappear, but an option is now there that wasn't there before.